The public discourse on “abducted women in Fuqing,” told in the pages of newspapers and magazines in the metropole, in colonial Taiwan, and on the Chinese mainland, offered sensationalized accounts of women’s victimization and the barbaric places where it occurred. Among these reports, a handful of first-person accounts, which passed through the hands of male editors or interviewers before appearing in print, resonated with the lurid accounts (or “cautionary tales”) of vain, gullible young women being deceived and sold into prostitution that circulated widely in metropolitan papers and popular literature in the early twentieth century. Yet the tales of Fuqing also incorporated motifs that highlighted the vulnerabilities of Japanese subjects to foreign predators and the inversions of power relations that might, by implication, jeopardize Japan’s imperial position itself. They may thus be compared to captivity narratives produced by subjects of the British empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which have been studied by Linda Colley and others. “Scrutinized closely and in detail,” writes Colley, “captivity narratives are often ambivalent, even subversive documents, because by definition they are about Britons or other Europeans being defeated, captured, and rendered vulnerable by those not white, or Christian, or European” (Colley 2000, 176). In early-twentieth-century East Asia, Japanese ideologues of empire often touted the ethnic, racial, and civilizational affinities among Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, but implicit in, or running alongside, such expressions was the notion that these affinities could be perfected only under Japanese guidance. In captivity stories, this project broke down at the margins.
The first, basic, message running through these accounts was that Fujianese peddlers and others like them could not be trusted, since they all claimed, despite their current lower-class appearances, to be from wealthy families who could guarantee their brides lives of opulence and ease in places more fabulous than anywhere in Japan. A six-part exposé on the experiences of recently-rescued Ōyama Chiyoko, in the Taiwan nichinichi shinpō in June 1933, indicated that she was working at a caterer’s in Nagasaki in 1926 when a Japanese woman, whom she didn’t know but who presented herself as the mistress of a Chinese man, began pressing her to marry a Chinese cook named Zai Shuoyuan, who had apparently taken one look at Chiyoko and fallen in love with her. Chiyoko, who came from a poor rural family and whose parents were long deceased, at first refused the proposition but eventually yielded to the woman’s persistent arguments and promises that Zai’s family were wealthy landlords and that their hometown was so opulent that it made Nagasaki look insignificant. Chiyoko thus “entered a new life dreaming of being queen of an unknown country.” The couple’s life was at first peaceful, but Zai soon demanded that they have a child, in order to to “bind her with invisible chains” (part 2). In late 1927, Zai quit his job and the family moved north, drifting between Nagasaki and Tokyo while Zai worked as a salesman or in other odd jobs. Chiyoko’s account spoke of a “pitiable mother and child, despite being in their own country, having to follow around a weak foreigner like stray dogs.” During this time, Zai had occasionally forced her to use opium as “part of his method of turning her into a complete Chinese” (part 4). Eventually, Zai left with their son, and she subsequently learned that they had traveled to China. Distaught, Chiyoko moved in with Zai’s cousin, a peddler, who then led her to China to rejoin Zai and her son. (Once in China, this cousin would, according to the story, participate in her abuse.)
The trip to the Chinese interior was depicted as a critical moment of transition, as the Chinese men’s attitudes changed, women became increasingly anxious and disoriented, and their bodies registered the effects. When Chiyoko met Zai on the dock in Fuqing, he didn’t speak to her, breaking his silence only when they had arrived in his home village. Kondō Aki, whose tale of her twenty-year captivity appeared in the December 1931 issue of the empire-oriented magazine Tōyō (The Orient), described running away from Japan with the peddler who had raped her in her aunt’s home when she was a student in a girls’ school and with whom she subsequently fell in love. (This man had also seduced her with gifts of cloth and tales of his family’s wealth.) When they arrived in Shanghai, they stayed in a Chinese inn, where she changed into Chinese clothing, before heading to Fuzhou and from there to the interior, a “weeklong journey in a sad countryside, where it is impossible to gain a sense of location or direction.” As her lover’s attitude toward her began to harden, and the money she had brought from Japan was taken from her, she “teetered along in uncomfortable Chinese shoes…being stared at suspiciously by people,” crying at the lack of toilets and despondent over the absence of even a single Japanese (Kondō 1931).
The shock of arrival at their partners’ homes exacerbated the corporeal impact of the journey, and accounts emphasize the blurring of the boundaries between human and animal that characterized women’s new situations. Chiyoko, realizing that nothing was as promised (no trains, no automobiles, no large estate, and no electricity), collapsed on the dirt floor of Zai’s hut and confronted “the stink of mud, fertilizer, and pigs.” One unidentified woman whose story was included in a 1927 article in Tōyō recounted entering "something so terrible that it could not even be called a place of normal human life, but something more like the life of dogs and cats": people lived in utter squalor, wearing "one filthy kimono, with no change and no washing; when they ran out of food, they ate [insects and lizards]. The place was infested with lice and fleas” (Ikeda 1927, 78). Kondō Aki recalled encountering “malnourished, sinister-faced old people (I couldn’t tell if they were men or women), with nervous eyes like monkeys or squirrels.…They looked at me and sneered coldly. Please imagine my feeling at having been placed in this condition. Even now, I am amazed that I did not lose my sanity.”
If the women had not already changed into Chinese clothes (many did so before embarking on their journeys in order to evade harbor police inspections), they were now compelled to abandon their Japanese kimono, recoiff their hair in Chinese style, and enter new lives as rural slaves, under the surveillance of abusive family members. Even worse was the discovery that their partners already had wives or lovers, a shock compounded by the fact that they were still required to be the passive objects of these Chinese men’s insatiable sexual appetites, even when they were sick, exhausted, or had recently given birth. Escapes, all writers noted, were few, and failure could lead to horrific abuse.
Not all was lost in these accounts, though, because they were told by people who had successfully escaped, and for whom escape meant the resumption of Japanese cultural attributes. When Ōyama Chiyoko finally departed, she had to abandon the son who, while bullied by the other villagers, would raise his fist and shout, “I’m a Japanese!…I’ll take on anyone who mistreats my mother!” But during her escape, Chiyoko reclothed herself in a Japanese kimono, the fabric imbued with memories of Japan. (Official sources, however, suggest a less sensational, more complex set of experiences.) Kondō Aki also abandoned her six children, but as she ran off, she recalled feeling sorry for the demon-like people who had abused her for the last two decades, thus reestablishing her position as that of a sympathetic, superior commentator reflecting on the ways of a more primitive, uncivilized tribe.
Nonetheless, these stories offered little in the way of happy endings; the matrix of conditions they described prompted one commentator to declare, “One cannot suppress feelings of horror at the thought of compatriot women in a foreign land, being dragged out in front of Chinese to be evaluated like animals” (Hatano 1929, 63). Indeed, Prime/Foreign Minster Tanaka Giichi had himself asked Fuzhou consular officials in 1929 to ascertain that the women had not been compelled to engage in any behaviors that sullied the reputation of the Japanese. The journalist, novelist, and China hand Andō Sakan, writing from Fujian in the daily Yomiuri shimbun in early 1932, admitted that “the Chinese are not to blame [for the women’s plight]; one could well deem the Japanese women themselves entirely responsible for having been seduced by their sweet talk” (Andō 1932a, 214). But Andō also published “true story” fiction about this topic, and warned of the threat from groups of Chinese attempting to enter Japan illegally in order to abduct women for marriage (Andō 1932b). These accounts, by inciting outrage and appealing to male anxieties, prompted enhanced efforts to reassert patriarchal national control over both Japanese women—weak and frivolous by nature as well as often by their lower-class position—and over Chinese migrants.
See also: "Photograph of the Chinese abductor of a [Japanese] woman" | Descriptions of Fuqing